EU official: Road digitalisation will lead to safer and greener highways

Road digitalisation has led to "remarkable" safety achievements, says Pierpaolo Tona of INEA. [Photo Mix / Pixabay]

This article is part of our special report Intelligent transport systems.

Intelligent Transport Systems have the potential to increase road safety and efficiency, cutting emissions and saving lives, says Pierpaolo Tona.

Pierpaolo Tona is a senior project manager with the Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA), a body established by the European Commission to manage specialised projects. He answered EURACTIV’s questions in writing. 

Intelligent transport systems (ITS) have been touted as a way to make transport safer and more efficient. How does it work in practice?

ITS are information and communication technologies (ICT) applied to transport, for example to road infrastructure and vehicles, traffic management, and mobility services. They rely on computers, electronics, sensors, telecommunications, and satellites. Hardware is installed in the road infrastructure and, depending on the type of service, also on the vehicles.

ITS allow to adjust road traffic to varying circumstances, flexibly adapting to changes in flows and unforeseen events. Lanes on a motorway can, for instance, be used in different ways, or a traffic light can immediately turn to green when a bus is approaching.

In terms of sustainability, what impact will ITS have on road emissions?

ITS reduce the number of road accidents and congestion, with traffic flow therefore more regular and efficient. As an example, I can mention the results of one of the ITS Corridors co-funded by the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF), which showed a decrease of 34% in the number of accidents, of 13% in average journey duration, and of 22% in CO2 emissions. I find these achievements remarkable.

What are the costs of implementing such types of systems? How can member states fund their implementation?

First of all, I think it is important to mention that ITS have the capacity to do more with less, compared to building new roads or upgrading existing ones. This is particularly relevant in Europe, where the space available to build or expand road infrastructure is relatively limited. It means that, instead of building or enlarging roads, we make more efficient use of the existing ones. Thus, ITS bring not only more efficient and safer transport, but also more efficient use of public resources.

When we look at costs, the four ITS Corridors funded by CEF showed an overall return on investment of about 4 years, as the combined investment of €232 million produced annual benefits of €55 million.

Furthermore, ITS implementation is supported by the EU, which means EU member states can count on significant financial support. It is worth noting that more than half a billion euros of CEF funding were spent on ITS.

I can say that we received very positive feedback from member states regarding the support they received from CEF, which goes beyond the financial element, as CEF encourages cooperation among countries and ensures interoperability across borders.

Will ITS be used to facilitate the Eurovignette tolling system? And how does the European Commission intend to make sure that ITS systems implemented across Europe are compatible with each other?

ITS is not serving the Eurovignette. There were ITS projects in the past, funded by the TEN-T programme, on European tolling systems. They showed that work is still needed at different levels to implement an efficient European Electronic Toll Service, as it is not just a technical issue.

As vehicles are crossing borders, ITS will not be useful if technical and operational interoperability is not ensured across the EU. Road users should always experience a seamless journey with continuity of services. We have very positive examples in this regard, such as the DATEX II data exchange standard used by the European Traffic Management Centres, or the ITSG5 communication standard used for C-ITS.

Will ITS roll out impose extra costs on road users?

ITS projects funded by CEF are focused on road safety and the efficiency of transport, not to impose extra costs on road users. The gantries on the highways, for example, are supported by the EU to provide information to road users (for instance real-time traffic information, speed advice, speed limits, travel time, availability of truck parking, re-routing recommendations) via large boards called “variable message signs”.

Some have raised privacy concerns about ITS, saying they will enable the tracking of people’s movements. How can those concerns be addressed?

Privacy is a legitimate concern for all of us. The EU is among the most advanced regions in the world in the field of data protection, and ITS make no exception. As an example, I recall the strict requirements imposed by the European Data Protection Supervisors when working on the implementation of eCall, one of the successful examples of ITS services. It is not by chance that the eCall system is based on the 112 emergency number and the SIM card inside the vehicles is dormant (i.e. not able to track the position of the vehicle before a severe accident). Another evidence of the extreme attention to data protection is the privacy working group of the C-ITS Platform established by the European Commission.

Is ITS a prerequisite for the next generation of automated vehicles? Should there be a deadline for all EU countries to implement an ITS?

Without any doubt, ITS contribute significantly to the gradual automation of transport. All vehicles rely more and more on communication and data exchange (with other vehicles as well as the infrastructure). More ITS means also more secure and trusted data exchange, which will ultimately lead to easier implementation of automation in transport.

However, automation is not directly connected to the mandatory implementation of ITS. This is currently limited to basic ITS services which derive from the ITS Directive 2010/40/EU.

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